By Anand Yadav
Illustrations by Purnata
A few weeks back, I was on my terrace, enjoying a sunny winter afternoon, when my 5-year-old neighbour Kanak came to me. He was lonely and wanted company. I asked him to go out and play with the girls who were also on the terrace. “After all, they all are in your age group, not me,” I pointed out. “No, my mother says not to talk or play with girls,” he replied. “But that’s the only option you have now.” As cruel as it sounds, I refused to play with him that day. He waited there, lonely, and finally went down when his mother called. I wondered whether Kanak would forget his mother’s ‘lessons’ when he grew up. Or, would he stick to them like he did today? I wondered how his relationship with women would be…how would his relationship with his girlfriend or wife would be — would he be able to build happy, fulfilling relationships?
I grew up in several small towns of eastern India in a lower-middle-class family which, for all practical purposes, resided in proper township colonies but, at heart, lived in the village. Most of the people, like my father, were only the first or the second generation in the family to step out of their hometowns. I too received very similar ‘lessons’ as Kanak. Segregation in classroom seating, assembly lines, and playgrounds were common. A girl could only be didi, behan, or classmate…never a friend. It was in class 6 that I remember having my first sexual fantasy. It was also the time when the badmaash backbencher types started bragging about how they touched that girl, or how they ‘made’ a girlfriend, or started discussing the storyline of some random blue film. Sometimes it felt embarrassing, other times, I would listen to their discussions and then think to myself, bahut gande ladke hai. This internalized sense of good and bad was quite clear; first, because of the constant reminders to stay away from them, and second because I knew I wasn’t one of them. I felt disgusted listening to them because I could understand the extra share of problems girls of my age had to face. Yup, I was very sensitive and empathetic as a kid, and when boys talked about any girl in a lewd way, it felt hurtful. For instance, when I was in class 7, I had gone to meet a female classmate at her home, but we could talk only for a short while. Her face showed her hesitation in inviting me into her home, and talking to her outside her house for more than few minutes meant inviting scrutiny of character. I guess I can take pride that I was smarter than most kids my age back then, haha. But when I started feeling sexual attraction, there was no one I could turn to. It felt frightening, confusing, and stupid. Those were the days of 2G and forget internet, having a mobile phone itself was a luxury. Once, I got my hand on a colourful magazine advertisement, where a semi-clad model was showing off her beautiful legs, and I couldn’t resist the temptation. I was looking at it intently, when my friend noticed and threatened to tell my mother. I was terrified. I actually felt like a criminal.
By my final years of school, expectations of love, sex, relationships had been shaped to a great extent, though almost none of us had actually experienced anything. A girl’s worth was equal to her beauty and a boy’s worth was equal to how many such “worthy” girls liked him. You could earn claps for excelling in academics, but if girls weren’t crazy about you, you would still be made to feel like a loser. When I entered university for my bachelor’s, this only further intensified. Life, with its inequalities, insensitivity, ruthlessness, and competition, doesn’t help. For men, it is hard for various reasons. There are more men wherever you go – universities, workplaces, or dating websites. The regressive patriarchy, while it helps men, celebrates only those who have been successful in creating their worth by these heteronormative standards. I myself started feeling like a loser because the girl I loved didn’t love me back. So much so that it felt more painful to get rejected by a girl, than it did to watch my grades sink. But the rays of maturity do not dawn so easily on men. They can’t. Why? Because women, too, grow up believing similar, if not the same, theories. And so, the provider mentality is very real and many women, though educated, consciously and subconsciously keep validating those same regressive cues and notions.
Add to this the complications of low self-esteem that I have, and boom, I had a recipe for disaster. What all this did was create a lot of anxiety and internal pressure. While perhaps I had always been a shy, introverted, nerdy kind of person, who spent summer vacations reading old textbooks and comics rather than playing cricket, my problem with low self-esteem started as I entered late adolescence. If I felt attracted to someone, I almost always felt an urgent pressure to impress them. I believed that if I had a girlfriend, it would mean I was attractive too. The fear of losing out and being left out was a key element in my thoughts. This doesn’t mean I didn’t have any genuine platonic friendships with women – I have and continue to. But my mind was often on a chase mode, desperate to feel validated, desired, victorious and this didn’t stop even when I had by my side a very pretty, very wise girlfriend, who I loved…who was also my best friend!
After I moved to Delhi, I would often feel the urge to approach upper-class Delhi girls to check my ‘worth’. Yes, my low self-esteem, and a desire to belong to this city and feel accepted by the people I somewhat envied, almost always turned a thing as simple as meeting new people, exploring a new city, approaching girls, into a battle I needed to win. I was neither able to act on these impulses, nor call this stupid and get over it. On one such night, I texted an ex-girlfriend, with whom I had been in a relationship for a month, and told her I still liked her and would want to kiss and make out if we met. I was in a relationship where I was happy and yet I sent these messages. Why? Because we were talking after so many months and I started feeling anxious and inferior. Here was a girl I once loved, with whom I had been in a relationship, who had yet never expressed desire for me. This had kept hurting me. A year later, I was admitted into a prestigious institute for MA where I got to meet some wonderful people. I liked some female classmates, thought of talking to them, making friends, to see if I liked anyone. Again, I started to feel the same anxiety and pressure. I would, at times, pose as a little too funny, too witty, or too intellectual to make a good impression. Although I wasn’t faking it, I would push myself to present a desirable, cool, confident side even when, at times, I felt neither the energy nor the inclination to do so. This went a little far and in the process of so doing, I assumed things like online communication was the same as offline. I overlooked other things like not all people liked or appreciated ‘adult’ jokes, or that people needed to have a level of comfort with you before you could start sending them flirtatious messages. The result was that some girls I talked to felt uncomfortable and, perhaps, offended. I felt guilty because that wasn’t my intention but I knew I was responsible too. After these experiences, I started distrusting myself. A person, who as a kid was sensitive enough to never hurt anyone, had become a person who was hurting people so frequently! Most of all, I hurt my girlfriend who sincerely loved me. While she understood my low self-esteem, she expected that I would, at the least, be honest with her. But for the fear of losing her, I compromised honesty, only to completely lose her; she never returned.
It’s not that the anxiety and inferiority complex that comes with pressure of being a desirable ‘worthy’ man always affects you dramatically. Often, it’s very subtle. I had a girlfriend and we had a beautiful relationship…the kind where you first become friends, then best friends, and then partners. I was in Delhi and she was studying in Varanasi. We shared a strong connection, and spent nights just talking, ignoring the fact that we had to go to office and college the next day. We shared memories that we had never shared with even our best friends and siblings. We would try to sense each other’s mood and help each other through periods of lows. We would act like kids at times, hehe. But sometimes, when I was tired or my mind was caught up in other things, I would not be able to tell her that. Sometimes, when I felt hurt because of something she did, I would fear telling her that. I was caught up in the feeling that I would do something wrong and she would leave me. This thought kept running in loops. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t have listened and understood, but my courage faltered. So even when I had a great girl, I was still not entirely happy. Having love in my life neither gave me lasting confidence, nor better self-esteem. My anxiety remained as it was, and I would get frustrated and dissatisfied with the long-distance part of the relationship, not realising that it was not going to remain so for eternity.
Now when I look back, I have begun to make sense of it. You see, good love, the kind that gets etched in our subconscious, is like a good orgasm. You might never have tasted it, and yet you knew you wanted it. You yearn for it; and if it comes, you are thrilled. You love it, you want it to stay forever, it doesn’t. It leaves, and you are left pining for it. You go mad; you start pushing yourself to go for it, but it starts evading you. The night sky is filled with darkness all around with a few stars here and there, but stars get all the attention; just like that, love gets to get all the attention. Those few seconds of bliss, those few moments of absolute relief, touch us to a depth we never knew we had. Remember the way Shah Rukh, in the movie Om Shanti Om, was mesmerised by a glimpse of Deepika….
That’s what I call the tyranny of love, or pyaar ka sitam. Isn’t it interesting that while both mean the same thing, the former sounds like I am planning a revolution against it, and the latter makes me sound like a 60s Bollywood shaayar, about to write a touching classic? Anyway, pyaar ka sitam means love comes to us with great promise, to fill our lives, but the truth is, and always was, that no matter how sweet and crazy it is, it can only fill very little of us. We are not Shah Rukh from Om Shanti Om; once Deepika turns around and goes inside, you have to wake up to the realisation that you are just a fanboy, standing on the red carpet, being dragged by bodyguards, and it is the crowd’s noise and not the melodious voice of KK that was there all the while.
Ironically, realising this has begun to make me calmer. It didn’t come easily nor did it come suddenly. To be honest, I am being able to write this piece only one and a half years after the day I honestly acknowledged that I needed to work on myself. See, I wanted to feel wanted, desired. As a teenager and young adult, I kept shuttling between yielding to these thoughts and resisting them. At one point, I would live like a carefree soul; at other times, I would feel terribly unattractive and desperate. I used to think once I had a relationship where I truly loved, and was loved by, my partner, I would feel good about myself. It felt like a goal to be accomplished to prove my worth. But even when I was in such a relationship, it was the same ordinary, mundane, dark life despite everything. If anything, it was only after I started reflecting and putting effort to understand my conditioning and psychology that I started to feel better about myself…more confident. I still desire to feel wanted, but now I have stopped chasing it like I did. I do feel pressure like before, but I don’t feel trapped anymore. In my journey, I have found a few things that work – reflecting critically, writing it down, talking about it, taking counselling, reading good self-help books and articles, meeting new people, and not hesitating to share weaknesses or past mistakes. You might lose your strong masculine appeal in the process but at least that anxiety won’t have power over you anymore. If the girl still likes you then, my Shah Rukh Khan, you have your Kajol. Uske papa Amrish Puri bhi ho toh you know what to do!
Anand listens to songs on loop, but ends up forgetting the name and then crying for not having saved it. He tries to be a wise, caring person and hopes to become one, before he dies.